Previous Capers

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Adventures of Bunny-Butt Chapter 1: Our Introduction

"MAAAAAAAYMER!" bellows a voice out the front door like a ship's horn. "Kitten, kitten, kitten," the voice continues. Suddenly a bellow from across the street,"MEEEEEEEEEAOUUUUUU, MEEEEEEEEEAOUUUUUU." A small gray, tailless creature streaks across the quiet neighborhood road, up the front steps and through the front door. It's Mamah, who doesn't want to be left out of whatever is going on. She's been across the street, probably schmoozing her favorite neighbors who've named her Squeaky, obviously after her dramatic, high-pitched squeal she's so generous to express.

Just a few weeks old
Mamah (pronounced May-muh, named after Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright's honey. It just seemed to fit.) came into our lives via a neighbor by my place in Arlington. I made the mistake of going to get my mail one day, when out of left field several tiny blobs were thrust in my face.

"Here, take one," the neighbor exclaimed, "they're wrecking my house!"

Upon one look, "Oh, alright," I reluctantly answered, "but I'll only take a female. We have too many male cats that like to mark the house." (Of course, my assumption about female cats would be eventually proven false, as female felines aren't without their complaints. Hell hath no furry like a female cat scorned.)

So, being the sucker that I am, I got the pick from a litter of adorable, evil kittens and selected the only female of the bunch that also happened to be the runt of the litter. All of the tiny fur bundles in this litter were tailless. Mama cat was a tortoise shell and dad happened to be one of several striking Manx I've seen prowling the neighborhood. I wasn't surprised that kittens materialized. People in my neighborhood are all too often adverse or slow to get their animals fixed. So, for what seemed like endless nights of sudden sleep deprivation, I heard multiple coupling events of feline drama under my bedroom window (like an omen). These things always seem to happen under the bedroom window in the middle of the night!

Mamah and Floyd - double trouble
She had to be barely 8 weeks old when I got her, but weaned. I was transporting Floyd back and Forth to my place at the time, so I had to introduce this tiny creature to the trouble maker. Since the early weeks are the impressionable ones for kittens, I definitely set her up to be a problem child with Floyd. Between Floyd's influence and her innate tendencies, Mamah would soon become a handful as she matured from kittendom. Luckily Floyd has a history of treating kittens well, so I wasn't surprised that he took to Mamah right away. He started the habit of licking her butt, as it was an easy target without a tail in the way. When he got tired of her constant attacks, he would move to higher ground, not that she was deterred by it, though.

Mamah also became attached to Vinnie. Every kitten should have an uncle Vinnie. He put up with her endless harassment and being a big, fluffy boy, she would snuggle into his fur for a nap.

Mamah with Uncle Vinnie
Mamah was a super active kitten, always clawing her way up the duvet cover to the top of the bed to play with the bird on a string that I would fling around like I was fly fishing. She would run in circles after it, leaping like a salmon swimming up stream. She had a fascination with kitty litter. I put out a small, shallow box for her tiny body to climb into to do her business, but she would spend large amounts of time simply tossing litter about. She still does at times. The box became a play pen and I went through a lot of vacuum cleaner bags.

In her early weeks, what little tail Mamah had was bent to one side, an indication of cramped quarters among her beefier brothers in the womb. As she matured into a teenager, Mamah's tail evolved into a shape similar to the Pope's nose on a plucked chicken butt; rather tear drop shaped, coming to a defined point like the top of a meringue. We nick-named her chicken butt or turkey butt, but that name eventually evolved like her tail into a more rabbit-like metaphor. Thus, the nickname Bunny-Butt. Being half Manx, her back is shorter than her tailed brethren causing her back end to stick up like a beacon to all of male catdom. She's also a flirt with the boys. We had her fixed as soon as possible, less we end up with 6 more just like her.

Very vocal, she presents a meow that sounds like the damsel in distress on the edge of the building seen in the Edward Gorey introduction to Masterpiece Mystery. And she's very liberal in her vocalizations with a lot of drama in the amplified chortles. She's now one of the gang at Mog Cottage, staying rather runt-like, but her personality more than compensates. Her teenage stage certainly proved eventful.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Do Gardeners Have Cats? It's That Nurturing Thing

To we gardeners, cats can be the bane of our existence. I can't tell you how many times I have gone out to weed only to find the occasional gooey lump of cat poo buried in the soil. Every time I weed a patch of soil and admire it's lovely soilness, the cats line up like kids at Disney Land just waiting to spoil the soil. They, in their feline hegemony, believe that you're cleaning out the soil for them; like your future cabbage patch is some giant outdoor cat box.

Of course, this issue around garden indiscretions is self-inflicted having adopted 9 of the little darlings (or rather having 9 adopt us as most materialized due to evil human kitten bearers thrust them in our faces proclaiming that they would rather have our house wrecked than theirs). It's the same mentality as a friend of mine having a cat live among the thousands of skeins of yarn in her yarn store. I just chalk it all up to being a certain personality type that gravitates towards a certain lifestyle that tends to incorporate potentially incompatible elements into the mix. For gardeners, it's often animals that use the great outdoors, preferably the unprotected garden spaces, to do their business. We're suckers for a cute face. It's that nurturing thing coming out.

I have listened to a many a gardener protest to me that the neighbor's cat chooses their yard above all others. It may be that their yard hasn't been claimed by a feline resident already, so it's open season for territory. It could be that all that lovely exposed soil, especially out of season is just too tempting for any feline to resist, especially after it's been cultivated to a lovely, fluffy consistency with fresh compost. Let's face it, well kept gardens are cat magnets. We're out there with the pooper scooper but, unfortunately, cats hide it all. Best to be proactive, I think.

Well, I've seen a variety of creative solutions to keep cats out of the beds. One solution is the motion sensor sprinkler head. It's automatic squirt bottle. When the cat gets too close it gets hosed. It sounds like a great solution until you forget to turn it off before working in that area. Plus, I would think you need a whole irrigation system installed for this purpose if your garden is big enough. Maybe just a heat seeking sprinkler head will do. Another solution is laying chicken wire just under the top layer of soil. Awkward! Need I say more? A thirds solution involves sticking a lot of small stakes into the soil. I suppose you could use garden art stakes if you don't like that rustic look, but you need a lot of them close together to discourage the potty behavior. Creativity can be expensive.

Having to deal with cats around our garden, we've come up with a great solution, at least for the veg. beds. Roland built a wooden grid system for each raised bed and the claw foot tubs. The slats are on 4 inch centers, attached to a frame that fits over the bed. Not only does it discourage cats, the grids act as row guides. Each 8 foot long bed has 3 removable sections. The only draw back is the inability to easily remove them if you have large crops such as cabbages, growing through the slats. Other than that, this system is almost 100% cat proof.

An attempt at breaching the defenses
That being said, sometimes our cats try to use the grids as perches. They precariously squat with one back foot on each slat. Every once in a while I see evidence of attempts like canals dug out or broken slats from our blobs trying it out. Cats like challenges, especially when they know that they're not supposed to do something. They're cunning and when your back is turned.....

As for the open garden spaces for larger crop plants, we most often use the stake method until the vegetation is well establish. By mid summer, our garden is pretty packed with plants, at which time our cats move on to the neighbor's yard.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Finally, A Veg Book That Has Everything!

OK, I'll admit it. I'm a bookaholic. My shopping list on Amazon is 5 pages long. It's so easy to do that one-click shopping thing! I've collected quite a pile of garden books from the convenience of my computer. Sometimes though, I am incredibly underwhelmed when the book arrives and it doesn't meet my expectations even though I've read the customer reviews that have mostly been favorable. Now I only hit the "buy" button if the book has the "see inside" function. That function has saved me from selecting something that will ultimately be a waste of money.

Every once in a while I find a real gem of a garden book that will end up with bent corners and dirt stains on the pages. My latest find is the newly published book, "What's Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? 100% Organic Solutions for All Your Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini" (why publishers have to have such long tag lines in titles is a mystery to me), co-written by Botanist David Deardorff and Garden Coach, Kathryn Wadsworth (Timber Press). This book is so well organized and cross-referenced that it requires only 249 pages, and that includes the index. It's a terse and pithy veg database in a paperback form.

The book starts out with how it is organized (like you can't figure that out yourself with this one) and the best way to use it.The introduction also contains information on recognizing cultural problems in the garden such as adverse water, soil, light and temperature conditions and how to best avoid issues from the get go. Further divided into three main sections, the first section addresses many of the common vegetable species planted in the garden. These pages are outlined in green so you know where this section starts and ends. The next section divides common plant problems by crop family. The final section guides the reader as to what general  proactive organic solutions work for common problems like wildlife helping themselves to your crops, row covers and blasting bugs with the hose.

What sets this book apart is the cross-referencing within each section. You never have to hunt for the information. Simply look up the veg you're interested in, read the general information required to grow it and, if you need help diagnosing a problem, there's a page number located under the title that directs you to that information. When you get to that page, there's a chart on symptoms, diagnosis and solutions. In addition, the solution column further directs you to detailed information.

This book was definitely written by filers (they do have their uses). The information is concisely laid out in colorful charts and even though the photos are small, they are very clear. This book offers nearly infallible means of diagnosing and treating plant problems. If you could only buy one veg garden book, then this is the one you should get. I think that the many other veg books sitting on my shelf will start gathering dust now that I've discovered this great reference.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Repurposing Antiques for the Garden

Roland and I went to a large bi-annual antique show the other weekend down in Puyallup. We didn't find much to brag about this time and in fact, we paroozed through the place in record time. However, I did run across an item that will be very useful in the garden, even though it wasn't originally intended to be used there. In fact, the vendor made it really easy to get that ah-ha moment by setting it up for it's new use. I believe that it was originally an old brass cream bottle holder, only now it contains 6 small Terra-cotta pots.

As a veg gardener, I don't relish the idea of schlepping starts back and forth from a cold frame to the house every day this spring in order to gradually harden off the tender little potentials to eventually live outdoors. Cardboard boxes get soggy and things tend to slide around. Garden products available for this purpose are often made of plastic and are awkward to lift out of a cold frame. So, when I saw this item, I naturally had to have it. For around $18, I felt is was worth the expenditure and now I have yet another reason to poke about antique malls, garage sales and thrift stores; a rather favorite, albeit costly hobby of mine (along with several other favorite, compulsive, expensive hobbies of mine).  It's much easier to put out the bucks knowing that the item has a practical use, not just something that sits on the shelf looking pretty, although I have plenty of that too; artifacts of shopping therapy.

The bottle holder allows me to carry 8 two inch pots of starts and being made out of brass, won't corrode in the great outdoors. Since this discovery, I found another metal 6-pot holder in an antique mall. This time I have to buy the pots for it, but it will hold slightly larger pots, perhaps tapered 4 inchers. Because my starts are sitting in a window sill, I don't have the luxury of watering them in place, so the handle on these wracks makes it easy to carry over to the kitchen sink for a good soaking.

I love the idea of repuposing. It goes so well with the whole organic thing and the items have a charm all their own. In this case, it will be very convenient to raise my baby Red Zebra tomatoes and other starts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Carrots Have A Circadian Clock?

Wow, another thing to keep track of and stash in our gardening repertoire. In the Feb/March addition of Organic Gardening magazine, Michele Owens writes an interesting article on the internal clocks of veg. The premise is if our turnips or radishes aren't mature before they bolt it could be because they weren't planted at the right time of the year and consequently, the length of light they need at certain growth stages is off kilter. According to biologist Takato Imaizumi of the University of Washington who is interviewed in this article, a plant's cells have an internal clock that rhythmically produces proteins that degrade and activate genes again in 24 hours. So, what I gather is that carrots and peas have regular internal sleep/wake cycles. If planted at the wrong time, they get jet lagged.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking in between fits of laughter- "What?!" Yep, your crop failures may not be from planting seeds before the soil temperature is warm enough for germination and the seeds rot.Your bolting lettuce may have hypertension issues from too much sun light, not too much heat. This theory may have some merit though. Imaizumi divides veg into 3 different categories: long-day flowering plants, short-day flowering plants, and day-neutral plants.

Long-day plants include carrot, cilantro, lettuce, peas, radish, spinach and turnip just to list a few. In other words, these veges need longer periods of light to flower. If you live in an area that often has cold springs, like the Pacific NW, long day veg planted in the spring languish until the weather gets warmer. Warmer soil also happens to coincide with more light. Many of these root crops are biennials that need a prolonged cold snap that triggers flowering in summer the following year. This mechanism is supposed to keep them from flowering the first summer, long enough to grow a good edible bit to harvest. Our prolonged cold spring may fool them and thus, when the days get long, they bolt. The plant germinates then shoots for the flowering stage because its internal clock says that's what it's supposed to do.The result is you get underdeveloped plants that flower before they're ready to harvest. The cure? Plant the seeds after the solstice for a fall crop. They develop well because they wouldn't flower until the following summer.

You may be surprised, but tomatoes can get too much light. They're short-day flowering plants. Ever notice that many of your tomato plants finally flower in the late summer to fall when the temperature starts to drop down too much to ripen the fruit? Indeterminate tomatoes just grow and grow and grow foliage until they bust out of their supports, then flower away in mid to late August. The sunlight promotes the vegetation, but the length of light promotes the flowering. This revelation may be why we need a greenhouse to really grow good tomatoes. They need the warmth, but not the light for the fruit to mature. In fact, many of the short-day crops grow better in warmer climates such as, pineapple, black-eyed peas, okra, pomegranate, sweet potato and as mentioned, tomato. Night and day are more evenly distributed all year compared to us, but the temperature doesn't drop to low to croak them before harvest time. Blueberries, June-bearing strawberries, common beans, cucumbers and raspberries grow here, but are either hardier or are at the mercy of our climatic swings.

Day neutral plants include alpine and everbearing strawberries, apple, many of the brassica crops, peach, pear, rhubarb and some cultivars of beans, cucumbers and corn, to name a few. These plants either like it hot or cooler.

Some crops are even sensitive to where they originated latitude-wise, depending on the variety. They evolved to survive at a certain latitude and therefore, light level. Although obviously not a veg, if you think about it, chickens require 16 hours of light a day to lay eggs, thus the seasonality of there egg laying cycle. Where do chickens come from (and don't say "eggs," duh)? Certain areas of the tropics, close to the equator where days are long enough to produce the 16 hour days without the big seasonal light/dark swings that we experience in the Northwest. I know of one backyard chicken aficionado who turns on the flood lights in his hen house until 2am during the winter months so he gets year-around eggs.

Unfortunately, if your long-day plants experience SAD, supplementing their fertilizer with melatonin won't work. However, the taxonomists are developing varieties that tweak that internal clock so we gardeners can grow things that otherwise would be difficult. Not only are our day lengths a consideration, Western Washingtonians experience prolonged cloud cover that can feel oppressive. That's another dimension to consider. Choosing varieties that are not only climate conditioned to ours, but also come from a similar latitude will help to ensure a successful crop.

Unfortunately, this bit of information is just one more thing to keep track of in the art of veg gardening. I could wallpaper my house with all of the charts I'm supposed to keep track of when, what, where and how to plant my veg. In this case, I think I'll start with the Solstice thing and see how it works out.

If you do too, let me know how it works out for you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spring Cleaning

transplanted leeks
Now that the worst of winter has past - one can only hope - it's time to take advantage of the sunshine and get out there to start cleaning out those beds! It's best to do it now for several reasons. First, you won't feel so overwhelmed when all of the chores hit you at once when official planting season begins. Second, you can assess what you have left to harvest and harvest it while jogging your memory of what worked and didn't work. Third, the ground is wet which makes it easier to pull out weeds. Finally, you can take inventory of your seed stash and see what you have and order the cool stuff before it's out of stock. This is the perfect time to get reacquainted with your garden.

Filderkraut cabbage - in at 8.8 lbs
I've spent the last two days bending over and yanking out tons of grass, shot-weed and old vegies out of the blueberry mound in the parking strip and in the raised beds. I harvested another giant Filderkraut cabbage. This baby weighs in at 8.8 pounds of spicy, cabbagey goodness. I'll make a soup then probably try my hands at sauerkraut, which is what this variety is traditionally used for.

Today, I planted French shallots and potato onions. I know, I know, I'm a little late as they should have gone in last fall, so I'll have to see how they do. Since I let some of my leeks go to seed, I now have leeklets coming up. I transplanted those in the same bed with the purple sprouting broccoli. Yep, that's what I said. My purple sprouting broccoli is back! It's shooting up new foliage from the same root systems and old stalks from 2 seasons ago, acting like a perennial. It has survived 6 inches of snow, ice, and below freezing temperatures this year. That stuff is tough! I got a lot of bang for the buck with that one.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli is back!
For soil replenishment I'll need to get some compost, corn gluten and mulch. The onions like a layer of mulch and I also want to tamp down the weeds. Corn gluten helps keep the weeds from germinating and adds nitrogen. It's also screaming yellow-orange, so best to mix it into the top layer of soil. I would like to get a load of arborist chips to put down on the parking strip where the blueberries are, but minimum deliveries for the free stuff off of Craig's List is from 6 all the way up to 15 yards! Although I would also use it around the raised bed's pathways, that's a lot of yardage. I would have Mt. Wood Chip in the driveway for awhile. I suppose I could let the neighbors have at it as a sort of mulchapalooza. Hmmmm. This might be the trick to getting Roland to get rid of those dead vehicles in the driveway. He works better with a deadline. I think I'll get on Craig's List and see about getting a load delivered next week.